Understanding_information_needs_on_the_web

schmitt shoots!!
hert
School of Information Studies professor Carol Hert G'95 wants to learn how and why people seek information on the World Wide Web.

When Carol Hert G'95 was systems librarian at the University of Delaware in the late eighties, she was in charge of implementing library automation software packages intended to improve patrons' access to materials. "I was very interested in how people used the software," she says, "because as I walked around and watched them, it didn't seem they were getting what they needed."
      Hert's desire to help these patrons became a burning need to understand how and why people seek and use information. Her quest has twice led to SU's School of Information Studies—first as a doctoral student in information transfer, and now as a professor with research interests in the interaction of users, systems, and the organizations that provide and support those systems. Although the scope of her research has expanded, its basic focus is unchanged. "It intrigues me that I've remained so interested in the topic that made me decide to get a Ph.D. in the first place," she says.
      What interests Hert now is how people use the World Wide Web, and how to design web sites that facilitate information seeking. "People have a number of strategies they can pursue to get information," she says. "I'm interested in what brings people to web sites, and how they use those sites to satisfy their information needs."
      Driving Hert's research is her work with a number of organizations that want to make their web sites more user friendly. She and colleague Charles R. McClure last year evaluated U.S. Department of Education sites to improve access. And Hert is in the third year of a long-term project to improve U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics web sites. "Organizations started off just putting up a bunch of content," she says. "I've seen a shift toward improving people's ability to find information. Organizations definitely recognize there's a lot more to using a web site than making it look attractive. Four years ago nobody was asking me to help them understand how people were using the web site, let alone how they could do a better job of managing the site to meet users' needs. Now, that's what organizations are interested in."
      Hert's suggestions range from restructuring the web sites to making changes in the organizations. Most are not prepared, for example, for the flood of comments that come from feedback buttons on their sites, she says. "That's the first inkling organizations have that maintaining web sites will mean some resource redistribution."
      Some are in for bigger changes. Hert notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has always considered itself a statistics producer, is putting more of its resources into disseminating statistics on its web sites. "That's a shifting mission for the bureau," she says. "Right now I'm trying to understand the kinds of changes these technologies are causing, and how we can better prepare organizations for these changes and make sure user needs are met."
      Hert brings what she learns in her research into the classroom. She teaches a course on information services and resources for the master of library science program, introducing students to ways reference librarians and other intermediaries help people find information. She also teaches a research methods class that allows students to become involved in her work. "Carol is a very strong research methodologist," says Kristin Eschenfelder, a doctoral student who worked with Hert on the education department project. "I have learned a lot from her about how to design quality research. She is very professional and deeply committed to her work. She has a sharp mind and an impressive breadth of interests and knowledge."
      Hert says a hallmark of her teaching is using a range of strategies to reach students. "I do distance education and classroom teaching. I've done intensive courses, workshops, and continuing education. I take the content that engages me and then find ways to package and deliver it to different audiences."
                                                                                                                                                      —GARY PALLASSINO



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